July 28, 2005

Privileged Planet?

Primate Brow Flash has written a review of the movie The Privileged Planet. The movie presents the idea that this planet was created just so intelligent life could emerge. And who knows, on this point the creationists and intelligent design people could be right. (How do you define 'create'? You can say that a mountain was created by the forces of geology, wind, water and time...) The problem of course is that if this planet were not able to support intelligent life then of course we wouldn't be here to ask circular questions. Two of the arguments in the movie (which I haven't seen) are that it can't just be coincidence that, as seen from earth, the diameters of the sun and the moon are the same allowing us to view the sun's corona, and, that the atmosphere is transparent to sunlight (which is at wavelengths that match the sensitivity curve of our eyes).

Another one of these arguments that I like a lot has to do with water. Water is absolutely essential for life on earth, and it has some special properties. Water is one of the very few substances known that becomes less dense when it freezes. The good part about ice floating is that it insulates the liquid water below, keeping it from also freezing. This property is important because it has prevented the earth from becoming a huge iceball many times through geological history. Parts of the planet have been and are covered by ice caps, but as far as we know the whole planet has never frozen. Also water has a large heat of vaporization/condensation, allowing it to transport a lot of energy through the atmosphere within a narrow temperature range (water vapor-clouds-rain), keeping the temperature stable and warming the poles. These properties give our planet a remarkably stable temperature which is not only good but also necessary for life. And we are mostly water, and depend on the hydrogen bond for the shape and function of proteins, mechanical properties of skin, shape of eye and so on. So, does the prevalence of water prove that God made it up special and put it here for us? Ask a Buddhist and they would probably say 'mu'. Ask an animist and they would say that water is a spirit. Ask a creationist and they would say that's for dang sure. Ask a physical chemist and they would say, its true, water certainly has some remarkable properties and life as we know it would not be possible without it.

5 Comments:

At July 28, 2005 2:05 PM , Anonymous Tim said...

Ask a nihilist and they'll say "I got a PhD just so I could turn people away from God"

The movie didn't mention the density of ice but made a big deal of the fact that there is such a narrow range of temperatures where water is liquid. From absolute zero to zero degrees C, water is ice, then for 100 degrees it is water and from then on its vapor. And here we are on a planet where water mostly exists in the liquid state. How lucky is that?

Also, if we were further away from the center of the galaxy, there wouldn't be enough of the heavier elements to support life and if we were closer to the center, there would be too much radiation and super-novas. So we are perfect there too.

Still, I'm not convinced. Non-existence is still an option for me. I guess I am a nihilist.

 
At July 28, 2005 3:59 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

It can't be a good idea to base faith on the phase diagram of H2O. Or on the frequency of supernova explosions in the center of the galaxy or on the spectral distribution of a black body light source at 5800 degrees Kelvin (the sun). Or on the existence or non-existence of evolution. The best I can derive from these pieces of evidence is that the Universe is an interesting place with a variety of rational physical properties. When I listen to my heart I hear a moral message about love and justice, and organized religion is a sometimes flawed systematized version of these simple truths. I don't see a human message in physical science (and I've been listening for years!), what I see is a set of tools that we can use, maybe, hopefully, to make the world a better place, because that's what we choose to do.

 
At July 29, 2005 5:08 PM , Blogger island said...

I don't see a human message in physical science (and I've been listening for years!), what I see is a set of tools that we can use, maybe, hopefully, to make the world a better place, because that's what we choose to do.

Have you never heard of the anthropic principle, because that IS a human message in physical science that creationists and their counterparts commonly abuse to their own ideological end.

A cursory study of it will cause you to make the same sterotypical mistakes and statements that they make too... especially if you're predisposed to the politics.

 
At July 30, 2005 8:42 AM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Island, thanks for writing!
I have many predispositions and they cause me to make stereotypical mistakes. But that's no reason to stop.
The anthropic principle in its various forms is saying,
In order for us to be here, things had to be such that we exist.
This is a tautology.
In order for us to be here, we have to be here.
The movie would like us to believe that all these perfect coincidences are not a coincidence, but evidence of intelligent design.
Because we are here there is a creator.
This is the emporer in new clothes. I am saying, don't tie religion to silly things like the earth being the center of the universe or the world being 6000 years old, its much larger than that and these 'facts' may be found out to be wrong, or trivial, or whatever.
For example, recent publications (2004) by Stephen Hawking suggest that our universe is much less 'special' than the proponents of the anthropic principle claim it is. According to Hawking, there is a 98% chance that a universe of a type as ours will come from a Big Bang. Further, using the basic wavefunction of the universe as basis, Hawking's equations indicate that such a universe can come into existence without relation to anything prior to it, meaning that it could come out of nothing (see www.wikipedia┬┤.org). But he has also written,
What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?
The whole thing boils down to an argument over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and meanwhile there is an immediate human need for compassion, love, forgiveness. I have an instinctual feeling that that is not something that is going to dawn on you after years of studying the distribution of nuclides, but instead that it is a human thing, something your heart is whispering.

 
At July 30, 2005 3:49 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Tim,
Here's a nice essay on trust and belief:
http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=318

 

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